What I Learned From “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal”

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Is there a more underrated actor out there than Sam Neill? Not quite a leading man type, yet more substantial than a character actor, Neill tends to avoid Oscar-bait-level emoting, preferring a subtle, intangible kind of humanity that rarely feels out of place in a role – whether it’s an archeologist who can’t believe his eyes, a repressed frontiersman in colonial New Zealand, or a grieving parent framed by some devious-ass dingoes. Notice that I said “rarely” out of place. That’s because I recently watched Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, a 2000 Hallmark Channel mini-series that featured Neill as Thomas Jefferson. SH:AAS is as cheap and flimsy as its title would suggest, possessing all the hallmark touches we’ve come to expect from a Hallmark Channel project, save a subplot where a nice single mom finally finds love with Santa’s hunky-yet-approachable nephew. So here’s what I learned:

1. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson met cute.

You see, Thomas Jefferson is at this party in Paris, and Sally Hemings shows up with her brother Mario Van Peebles. When Jefferson lays his eyes on her, he wonders aloud about who this girl could be, clearly thinking she’s some Parisian debutante he somehow hadn’t met before. But in reality, she’s his 14-year-old slave! There’s a wacky misunderstanding for ya! Don’t you just love love?

2. Sally & TJ were just like Audrey & Bogie.

I’m clearly not an expert on Jefferson or Hemings, ’cause I used to just assume that their relationship probably wasn’t much like the kind of love affair you’d see in an Audrey Hepburn movie. But Sally Hemings: An American Scandal set me straight on that, depicting their initial time together in Paris as the kind of coy May-December flirtation we saw from Hepburn and Bogart in Sabrina. And instead of running away to Paris like Linus and Sabrina do in that beautifully impulsive way, our star-crossed lovers run away from Paris back to the U.S., where everything turns out great! If only Billy Wilder had stuck with his original ending, where Linus has a surprise waiting for Sabrina in France – a life of endless toil on his Parisian brie plantation.

3. Sally Hemings could’ve left Monticello at any time, but she didn’t, because love.

At the end of Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, something scandalous actually does happen – Hemings (played by Carmen Ejogo, who gives it her best shot I guess) reveals a note in Jefferson’s handwriting that grants her freedom. A note that was written decades earlier in France! Which means that she chose to live as a slave, to have six children by a man who would never acknowledge them, not to mention acknowledge her entire race as being 100% human. Not that I’d question the integrity of this project, but according to a study by the Research Committee On Thomas Jefferson And Sally Hemings (conducted the same year SH:AAS was released), there is no written record that Hemings was ever granted freedom. Even after Jefferson’s death, she “would have been recognized as free in her local community but, without any legal ‘free papers,’ she could not have safely left the neighborhood where she was known.” Well, you know what, Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings? You can shut your faces, because this ain’t the History Channel we’re talking about. This is the motherfucking Hallmark Channel, and on the Hallmark Channel, it’s all about the love – the bubbly, inspirational, slave-on-president love.

4. Thomas Jefferson couldn’t have fathered Sally Hemings’ kids, because he lived in the sky.

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5. Thomas Jefferson’s life was boring.

Going by what I’ve learned from TV miniseries, John Adams was a colorful, highly influential, endlessly interesting figure in American history, and Thomas Jefferson was a guy who wore wigs and went to things in them. Neill plays Jefferson – one of the more eccentric and compellingly contradictory Founding Fathers – like a less enraged Alistair Stewart, his quiet, emotionally log-jammed jealous husband from The Piano. He gets a little fired up when other men seek Sally’s affections (remember about all the true love?), but over the course of the THREE HOURS of the miniseries, this Hallmark Jefferson is little more than a wallflower. Even when he’s signing the Louisiana Purchase, or teaching youngins in his old-guy makeup, or bemoaning the loss of Monticello to his debtors, it’s clear that only one thing could interest the great Sam Neill during this shoot – his paycheck.

What I Learned From “Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction”

Having just watched every episode of The Wire in a marathon session, I’m more familiar than ever with the devastating failure that was the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs.” The jury’s out on whether or not the people who crafted this policy ever cared about stemming the tide of American drug use, or just wanted to give law enforcement an excuse to lock up as many black people as their heart desired. This I do know for a fact, though – the campaign’s slogan, “Just Say No,” was hilariously ignorant, and offensive to any person who turned to drugs to numb their pain. The same kind of shortsightedness that birthed “Just Say No” is what inspires Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, a fantastically campy  TV movie broadcast in 1983, one year into Reagan’s first term. Starring Dennis Weaver (the voice of Buck McCoy!) as an aging California real estate agent struggling to compete with a flashy youngster who’s starting to outsell him, Cocaine paints everything in hysterically broad strokes, as Weaver’s character goes from a respectable blue-collar guy to a bloody-nosed psychopath over what feels like a couple of weeks. It’s just the kind of movie that will make a young person want to try cocaine, if only to prove that what he just saw was a load of shit. Anyways, what did I learn?

1. Dennis Weaver has some nostrils on him.

I know that cocaine will make you act like an asshole and ruin your life and all that, no matter who you are, but I think there’s a logical explanation for just how quickly Weaver’s character hits bottom in this movie – his cavernous nostrils. There’s no doubt that he’s consuming 10 times more coke per snort than his fellow addict friend (played with suicidal glee by Jeffrey Tambor). It makes you think, if Jimmy Durante was a cokehead, how long would he have lasted?

2. Cocaine will make your midlife crisis even crisis-ier.

In the early stages of Weaver’s “seduction,” he suddenly becomes better at his job, his newfound drug use loosening him up around clients and making him ready to make the jump to selling the big-time listings. It’s at this point that he decides to look the part too, cruising the SoCal freeways looking like a dad having a nervous breakdown, a wreck of leather, black shades and wide-collars.

3. Cocaine will make you betray James Spader.

When Weaver’s wife discovers cocaine in the house, it’s not his – it’s his son’s (played with extreme blondness by James Spader). Of course, Spader actually stole his from Weaver’s shaving kit stash, which makes for some wonderful “I learned it by watching you!” moments. Throwing his own son under the bus marks the low-point for Weaver, who begins the long road to recovery soon after. Which you’d never make a movie about, because bo-ring.

4. Cocaine is highly addictive, but ’80s movies about drugs are even more so.

I know that we’re supposed to be devastated by how far Weaver has fallen in this movie – from a rock-solid family man who topped the sales chart at the office for a decade (“10 years!”) to a jittery douche who would sell out everybody he loves for another fix. But Weaver is just so brilliantly hammy, he turns this message movie into one hell of a good time. Watching him get progressively sweatier, more paranoid and bug-eyed, sneaking hits during showings, hornily grabbing his wife by the sink, it’s like manna from heaven for camp lovers. I’ve since watched several more movies like Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, none of them matching its intoxicating blend of hyper-melodrama, over-the-top acting and low-ball budget. Netflix offered this one to Watch Instantly; when they take it off, I’m going to have to buy it. That’s how the pushers get you hooked. That, and VHS packaging like this: